Review: Tom Wright, Simply Good News: Why the Gospel Is News and What Makes It Good. San Francisco: HarperOne, 2015.

Yet another book has rolled off the press from the prolific Tom Wright: Simply Good News. He is a scholar of prodigious learning with an uncanny ability to write in a lively and exciting way. The content of Simply Good News is largely found in Wright’s more academic works. This book aims to be a simple summary of Wright’s understanding of the gospel (or good news) for the lay Christian.

Why has Wright written a popular account of the gospel, or “good news”? Because, he believes, many Christians have turned the good news into either “good advice” or “wrong news”. By “good advice” Wright has in mind a set of instructions, like how to pray or be a better spouse. This, he suggests, is not even news let alone good news.

Good news vs good advice

Wright contends that news must contain an announcement of an event. This, he notes, is how the word “gospel” was used in the first century. A “gospel” announced monumental events like the appointment of new Caesar or a Caesar’s victory over his enemies. Wright points out, that “good news” like this must affect the present. An emperor’s conquest would often mean a new prosperous time for his people.
So, Wright argues that the Christian “good news” is the announcement of an event which has made the world a different place. The event is the death and resurrection of Christ: “For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, 4 that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures.” (1 Corinthians 15:3–4, ESV)
But Wright also argues that what gives proper meaning to this event is the “backstory” into which it fits. Christ’s death and resurrection happened “according to the [OT] scriptures” and they contain the backstory.

Good news vs wrong news

On the other hand, Wright believes that some Christians certainly preach news about the event of Christ. But it’s the “wrong news.” He gives an example:
We know that Jesus died for our sins! He took our punishment so that we could go to heaven! Isn’t that good news? If you thought you were destined for hell and suddenly someone told you God had done something about it, wouldn’t that be good news? (5)

Wright argues that this “isn’t exactly the good news Jesus and the early church were talking about.” In fact it’s a “different story from what the New Testament authors meant by good news.” The statement “Christ died for our sins” is regularly ensconced in a wrong backstory thus making it “wrong news.”
To sum up: Wright believes that for something to be news it must contain:

  1. an announcement of an event;
  2. a backstory in which the event makes sense;
  3. a new understanding of the future as a result; and
  4. a transformed comprehension of the present in light of the past event and new future.

The Wright Gospel

What then does Wright believe is the “good news”? He argues that the proper backstory to Jesus’ death and resurrection is the OT (24). Wright’s version goes like this (20-25).

  1. Creation: God created the world which fell into evil through Adam’s sin.
  2. Covenant: God chose Israel and “made them special” so they could rescue the world from Adam’s debacle. However, Israel failed in this mission because she showed herself to share in the same evil as all humanity. Indeed, Israel “needed rescuing themselves” (23).
  3. Future: The OT looked forward to a time when God himself would come to Israel (Isaiah 40:5; 52:8) and rescue her and then the whole world including creation itself (Isaiah 65:17-25). God would achieve this particularly through a coming king (Isaiah 61:1-3). Wright believes it is a story awaiting its climax. And that climax is found in Jesus.

How does Wright understand Jesus to fit into this OT backstory? Jesus is himself God who comes to Israel as the OT promised he would. Furthermore, Jesus personifies Israel – he fulfils her mission to rescue fallen creation. Christ “was claiming to do things through which the world would be healed, transformed, rescued, and renewed” (35). This, for Wright, involved Jesus defeating the powers of evil that enslaved Israel (and the world) in his death on the cross. And in his resurrection Jesus showed himself to be the long awaited king (which is basically what “Christ” means) who now rules the world. The kingdom of God has commenced! Moreover, Christ’s resurrection inaugurated the new creation, which will be completed when he returns a second time. Wright can summarise the good news in these kinds of ways:

The good news is about the living God overcoming all the powers of the world to establish his rule of justice and peace, on earth as in heaven. Not in heaven, later on. (43) …The good news is that the one true God has now taken charge of the world, in and through Jesus and his death and resurrection. (54) … God wants to put humans right to put the world right. And the good news is that this, too, has been accomplished through Jesus. (97)

The Wright Gospel Life

This “good news”, Wright believes, has enormous consequences for Christian living before Jesus returns. As he keeps on repeating, the good news is not ultimately about “going to heaven when you die” (90) and inhabiting some bodiless experience for eternity. Rather, Christ’s resurrection has launched the new creation in which he is Lord over all, right now. Thus, the gospel-shaped life is about praying and working “for signs of that new world to be born even in the midst of the old age” (116). Indeed, Wright believes “there are excellent reasons for making these efforts a major preoccupation.” And these signs include “caring for the poor, tending the sick, and providing education for people of all sorts”. He sums it up:

The good news is that the living God is indeed establishing his kingdom on earth as in heaven, through the finished work of Jesus, and is inviting people of all sorts to share not only in the benefits of this kingdom but also in the work through which it will come to its ultimate completion. (164)

How should we weigh this challenge from Wright? Next week we’ll continue with an assessment of his gospel.